The Rocket War of Chios, Greece

Chios Church Easter 1

Imagine a sleepy Greek island town. Crystal-clear waters lap against pebble beaches, traditional tavernas line cobbled streets, and the majestic Aepos Mountain casts a shadow over everything. Idyllic, right? Well, unless you visit Vrontados on Easter weekend. Here, two local parishes engage in a peaceful war, firing over 100,000 homemade rockets at each other!

A Tradition Ignited

This Easter spectacle, known as Rouketopolemos (literally "rocket war"), has an undocumented history, but legend places its origins in the Ottoman era. Under Turkish rule, celebrating Easter, a Christian holiday, was risky. To scare off potential invaders, congregations from two hilltop churches devised a plan: stage a war by firing cannons at each other. By 1889, the Turks confiscated the cannons. But the islanders, ever resourceful, began building rockets – a tradition that continues to this day.

A Raucous Celebration

The two churches involved are St. Mark's and Panaghia Eirithiani, standing just 400 meters apart. Today, the rocket war is more of a game. The objective? To hit the opposing church's bell tower. Counting hits in the ensuing chaos is nearly impossible, so both churches declare victory, leading to a good-natured rematch the following year.

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The Rocket War of Chios, Greece 1

Preparations for this chaotic event begin months in advance. Residents build thousands of rockets from sticks and gunpowder. The practice is technically illegal, but authorities tend to turn a blind eye. On the festival day, trucks deliver rockets to Vrontados, buildings are boarded up for protection, and launchpads are readied at the churches. As evening approaches, the air fills with the buzz of activity and the occasional errant rocket.

The Night Sky Ignites

At 8 pm, the party begins. Locals celebrate with drinks as the rockets are readied. A horn blares at 10 pm, signalling the start of the war. The night sky explodes in a dazzling display of colour and sound. The rockets fly, and residents take cover – it's a thrilling, slightly terrifying spectacle. There's a brief pause at midnight for Easter service, and then the fiery battle resumes until all the rockets are spent.

A Tradition Steeped in Risk

Despite its festive atmosphere, Rouketopolemos is dangerous. Injuries from burns and stray rockets are common, and there have been fatalities in the past, particularly among those building the rockets. Local fire and ambulance services are on hand, but safety is largely up to the participants.

Chios Church Easter 1
The Rocket War of Chios, Greece 2

The next morning, the cleanup begins. Thousands of spent rockets are removed, and Vrontados returns to its usual tranquillity. But behind the scenes, the planning for next year's war has already begun.

Witnessing the Spectacle

If you're interested in experiencing this unique Easter tradition, head to Vrontados on Holy Saturday. While watching from a safe distance on the slopes of Mount Aepos is recommended, some brave souls venture closer to the churches' launchpads. The festival is free to watch, and several restaurants and bars offer prime viewing spots.

A Legacy of Tradition

The Rocket War of Chios is a fascinating blend of religious tradition, playful competition, and undeniable danger. It's a testament to the enduring spirit of the Greek islanders and a spectacle that continues to draw visitors from around the world. Just remember, wear sturdy shoes, keep your head down, and enjoy the show!

Chios Church Easter 2
The Rocket War of Chios, Greece 3
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